The beer fermenting vat, birth and death in Mesopotamia.


The fermentation vat is also a symbol of birth. In remembrance of its bulbous shape, its narrow neck and its flowing orifice, the approximation is justified in the Mesopotamian thought. This Mesopotamian prognosis has explicitly linked the fermentation vat with the birth :

« If a mouse gives birth in a fermenting vat (namzîtu), …. »

One anecdotal evidence, that event must have been common. At that time, every brewing vats are near the stocks of barley and malt inside a brewery or a tavern. Mice are not far away.  More savvy, Egyptians worshiped cats !

Another incantation accompanying birth, that of human this time, gives this indication:

" as a knot, she (the parturient) will unbind, as a pitcher dug-útul, she will open. »[1]

The dug-útul pot appears in the introductory prayer to the fermenting vat. The incantation links unambiguously the water lost before birth and the beer flowing from the bottom of the fermentation vat. This beer flow not only means joy and abundance (Hymn to Ninkasi) but is also a striking feature of this vat, with flowing hole at bottom and its cap.

A text of incantions against a witch compares the fermentation vat with the female belly. But this time, it's to curse, not to bless :

" As for her [the witch lilith] expertise, magic and evil praxis : 
 may she gnaw at her own fingers like cheese,
 may she always prnounce her word like pitch,
 and may (her) womb drip beer like a fermenting vat [dugNIG-DUR-BUR].

A closer look at the symbol of the belly that leaves the beer dripping is not very positive, as the context already indicates. The female devil Lilith is one of the most execrated and feared beings in Mesopotamia. What is desired for the witch Lilith is nothing less than a sort of rotting of her guts. The execration openly states that the beer dripping from the fermenting vat can be a deadly fermented liquid. The couple "fermentation vat / female belly" is here dispenser of death.

We get clues of the symbolic ambivalence of the beer fermentation expressed in Mesopotamia. The living nature of yeasts has captured the imagination and induces a deep parallel with human life. Yeasts generates life but, inevitably, the fermented material will evolves in rotten stuff. On one hand, the beer-starters or leavens, the beer itself and every brewing utensils (vats, vessels, supports) are the place of divine manifestations and produce pure strength, life and alcohol. On the other hand, the same vat, a witch's womb or a female belly contains the germ of decay. All Mesopotamians could witness that. A week is enough for a jar of poorly cleaned beer to exhale foul odors of decay. The sedimented proteins, the yeast residues and the starchy materials are perfect material that raise putrescence at room temperature. Every Mesopotamians could make that ordinary experience at home or in a tavern when he smelt an old jar of beer or a pot of old beer.

Admittedly, the Mesopotamians valued oils and scented ointments for body care. There is no evidence that this trend won their eating habits or has concerned the whole population. The decomposing of the beer has not necessarily a negative connotation for their noses.

The fermentation vat plays an unexpected role in the extent of its attributed powers. If a demon enters through the window of a house :

« one can cover it with a fermentation vat (gakkul) not to be opened » [3].

To act as a trap for demons, this vat is considered a powerful magical object.


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[1] Van Dijk J. 1975, Incantations accompagnant la naissance de l'homme, Orientalia Nova Series 44, p. 68.

[2] Markham Geller 1989, A new Piece of Witchkraft in DUMU-E2-DUB-BA-A, Studies in Honor of Ake W. Sjöberg (Festschrift SJÖBERG), p. 199 [33-36].

[3] Römer W. 1989, Eine Beschwörung gegen den 'Bann' in DUMU-E2-DUB-BA-A, Studies in Honor of Ake W. Sjöberg (Festschrift SJÖBERG), p. 475 [42-43].

15/01/2012  Christian Berger